“THIS city now doth, like a garment, wear/ The beauty of the morning; silent, bare/ Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie/ Open unto the fields, and the sky;/ All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. …” Perhaps something similar could have been said about the view from Westminster Bridge just yesterday.
As industry and most other forms of human industry have ground to a halt across much of the world in recent weeks, reports from around the globe reflect on remarkably blue skies and speak of wildlife returning to reclaim spaces taken over long ago by an invasive species that has suddenly retreated, where possible, to its domestic sanctuaries.
This isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration, of course. The near-cessation of economic activity poses an existential threat to many of Earth’s denizens. Yet the consequences of the shutdowns and lockdowns prompted by an invisible foe are also a reminder of who is primarily responsible for the degradation of the natural world and the relentless abuse of its resources.
No one can authoritatively say what William Wordsworth — the poet quoted at the outset — would have made of humanity’s present predicament. Or, for that matter, of the fact that commemorations of his 250th birth anniversary, which fell yesterday, have presumably had to be cancelled or postponed as the novel coronavirus takes its toll and Britain’s prime minister is in intensive care.
Wordsworth’s best verse will no doubt endure.
He would probably have been surprised, though, to realise what he perceived from Westminster Bridge in the early hours of Sept 3, 1802, resembles the new normal. And, not for the first time, there is cause, too, to recall another Wordsworth sonnet — the one that begins “The world is too much with us; late and soon,/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; —/ Little we see in Nature that is ours; …”
Encountering him both at home and in the high school curriculum, I was fairly charmed by Wordsworth in my early teens. The curriculum included a delightful excerpt from his autobiographical poem The Prelude — which, periodically revised, remained unpublished until the poet’s death in 1850, but was subsequently recognised as one of his foremost achievements.
I can’t say I have frequently returned to Wordsworth since those days. Other Romantics — notably Keats and Shelley — have cast a more lasting spell. Wordsworth may have been innovative in his diction, but all too many of his longer poems come across as avenues to tedium. Verses from some of the shorter ones, however, are firmly impressed upon the memory.
They include his declaration that his heart leaps up whenever he beholds a rainbow in the sky: “So was it when my life began;/ So is it now I am a man;/ So be it when I shall grow old,/ Or let me die!/ The Child is the father of the Man; …” as well as the dancing golden daffodils he saw dancing in the breeze: “For oft, when on my couch I lie/ In vacant or in pensive mood,/ They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude; …”
Solitude is held out as a necessity these days, but it isn’t always a pathway to bliss. Reports from all too many parts of the world, for instance, refer to a surge in domestic violence when abusive partners or parents are corralled by necessity with their usual victims. There is even anecdotal evidence of related homicides.
It’s hard to say the extent to which that would have perturbed Wordsworth, who drifted from his universal empathy with the downtrodden — proclaiming “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven! — Oh! times, …” in relation to the French Revolution. A trip to France right after the revolution had brought out the inner Jacobin in Wordsworth, and his revolutionary zeal prompted him to defend regicide in A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff.
But if the 18th-century Wordsworth came across as a proto-revolutionary, he evolved into a feudalist Tory as the 19th century progressed, and eventually was deemed sufficiently pro-establishment to be named as poet laureate. By the time that happened in 1843, he rarely wrote any new poetry, and died in 1850.
Long before that, however, he left an indelible mark on English literature. His political trajectory was typical not only of his age but of the period since then — although there are many honourable exceptions. And although I remain immune to many of Wordsworth’s longer excursions, his best verse will no doubt endure.
And it’s interesting to wonder what he might have made of the proposed green deals in several countries that seemed significant even before the pandemic but have acquired greater potency since the unexpected assault by a previously unknown virus sparked a sudden outbreak of socialist tendencies in the most devotedly capitalist parts of the world. Perhaps a contemporary poet, like the unfortunately ailing Michael Rosen, might offer better answers.
Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2020